During her 2011 visit to Washington, DC, President Obama hosted Chancellor Merkel at a festive White House state dinner and conferred on her the highest award he could offer—the Medal of Freedom—while James Taylor sang “You’ve Got a Friend” in the background. Three years later, some in Berlin doubt the sincerity of President Obama’s friendship when his government is listening to the Chancellor’s cell phone. To forge ahead, Merkel’s visit this week will need to recall why the German-American partnership is more than the sum of its parts. Despite their enormous differences in background and style, Merkel and Obama share a similar approach to crises—they react cautiously, slowly, and incrementally. That instinct has been on display again in recent months.

The Ukrainian Challenge

Despite continuing tensions over the NSA controversy, the major crisis looming in Ukraine should serve as a reminder that German-American relations have been and are largely shaped by shared challenges and choices. With Russia’s annexation of Crimea, they share one very difficult set of challenges in Europe.

While Chancellor Merkel will be making a public speech in Washington championing the virtues of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the Ukraine crisis looms ever larger and more immediate. There is a distinct possibility that the current situation could evolve into a military conflict between Russian and Ukrainian troops in the coming days or weeks.

The Chancellor and the President need to address how they are going to deal with one of the most serious confrontations with Russia in decades. That confrontation is also a major opportunity for German-American and transatlantic relations to test their capacity to present a common front in the name of both shared values and interests. This crisis, however, could also lead to a serious breakdown in the alliance if things go wrong.
While Chancellor Merkel will be making a public speech in Washington championing the virtues of TTIP, the Ukraine crisis looms ever larger and more immediate. There is a distinct possibility that the current situation could evolve into a military conflict between Russian and Ukrainian troops in the coming days or weeks.

It remains to be seen how both Washington and Berlin are going to prevent Ukraine from sliding into civil war and keep an increasingly antagonistic Putin from sending in Russian troops, as he did in Crimea. It also remains to be seen how the German and American publics will react to such a scenario.

Reacting to Russia despite their enormous differences in background and style, Merkel and Obama share a similar approach to crises—they react cautiously, slowly, and incrementally. That instinct has been on display again in the current conflict.

German and American reactions to Putin’s quick take over in Crimea and his direct support for insurgent forces in eastern Ukraine caused continuous consultation across the Atlantic. The result was Western economic sanctions on Russia and threats of more to come should Putin raise the stakes by sending his troops into eastern Ukraine. Yet, the question remains—how effective can sanctions be in the face of raw military power?

Germany and the United States both have significant leverage on Moscow. Germany’s economic relations with Russia are significant through both trade and investment as well in Russian energy imports. The United States has far less trade or energy imports from Russia, but it has the capacity to inflict serious harm on Russia’s economy through sanctions preventing Russia’s ability to engage in the world market and in instigating massive capital flight. The fact remains that these measures take time—more time than a quick military intervention by Putin’s troops.

While no one in Washington or Berlin expects a direct military confrontation with Russia, the escalation of domestic conflict in Ukraine is being exacerbated by Putin’s threats to intervene on behalf of Russians allegedly asking for protection. Were that to occur, the reaction throughout Europe could galvanize efforts to further isolate Russia in economic terms. It could also strengthen the Euro-Atlantic alliance overall in what is certain to be a long-term face-off with Moscow.

But, that very much depends on leadership in both Washington and Berlin. Just how far Washington and Berlin, together with their European and NATO partners, can go in ratcheting up economic pressure on Putin remains to be seen. The current declarations of sanctions are left to the individual countries to implement but they are not fully in lock step. Added to that uncertainty is a shaky consensus on what the crisis in Ukraine means for the stability of energy resources for those countries significantly dependent on Russian gas and oil supplies. Furthermore, energy companies on both sides of the Atlantic—including Russia’s Gazprom—are loudly and aggressively lobbying against sanctions. Finally, NATO’s need to respond to a potential military threat it had not anticipated and for which it has not been training due to declining military budgets throughout the alliance structure is another concern.

Domestic Constraints

Chancellor Merkel is dealing with her own domestic debate over Russia’s actions and intentions. Germans are arguing publicly about Putin’s motives and Russia’s past and future. There is a widespread tendency in Germany to offer various rationales for Putin’s behavior toward Ukraine, some of which verge on excusing his aggression and blaming the West for provoking him. Others question the legitimacy of the interim government in Kiev. German business leaders are wary of jeopardizing commercial relations with Russia.

There is a strong current of skepticism in Germany about U.S. motivations and policy choices founded not only in hostility over the NSA controversy, but also in a general tendency to find fault with the United States as too “trigger-happy” or arrogant toward both its allies and its challengers. Overall, Germans simply do not like the specter of war interfering with their lives.

Chancellor Merkel is hearing that kind of critique from her coalition partners and opposition leaders. She is also hearing it from her predecessors. Maneuvering through her own domestic political debates is going to be tough enough, but it will be multiplied further in her dealings with other European partners who are anything but unified on Ukraine. Whereas the countries bordering Russia are calling for strengthening NATO’s presence in their territory, others are less confrontational with Moscow for either economic self-interest or because Ukraine is not high on their agendas.

President Obama has his own dilemmas. He faces a noisy Congress and critics calling to aggressively counter Putin—but who are no more willing to send troops to confront him than are Europeans. Applying stronger economic sanctions will be less painful for the United States than for some of his European allies, particularly Germany. Yet, the question remains: is the transatlantic relationship strong enough to sustain a long-term face off with Russia, a prognosis that is more than likely. Are Merkel and Obama able to secure domestic support for that long haul?

Crafting the Message

How effective Germany’s response to Putin’s aggressive posture will be depends on whether there is a clear message coming from the Chancellor and her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, about the stakes for Germany, Europe, and indeed the stability of an international system based on law and mutual security. The Federal Republic of Germany was the beneficiary of that commitment for years, and it eventually led to German unification.

As German President Gauck recently said in his speech to the 50th Munich Security Conference:

“Germany has long since demonstrated that it acts in an internationally responsible way. But it could—building on its experience in safeguarding human rights and the rule of law—take more resolute steps to preserve and help shape the order based on the European Union, NATO, and the United Nations. At the same time, Germany must also be ready to do more to guarantee the security that others have provided it with for decades.”

President Obama needs to deliver a similar message to Americans laying out why what is at stake in Ukraine is also in U.S. interests. After the exhaustion of Iraq and Afghanistan, it will not be an easy argument. The fact remains that what happens in Ukraine can have ripple effects around the world and help draw the United States into other crises elsewhere. The President’s recent trip to Japan and South Korea underlined the regional conflicts simmering there and where American leadership is needed. One can be sure that many people in that arena are watching how the United States deals with Russia.

While it is sometimes argued that nations have permanent interests but not permanent enemies or allies, the relationship between countries is in part a function of leaders who define the parameters of interests that overlap or clash with other nations.

You’ve Got a Friend

For almost seven decades, German and American leaders have defined the majority of their national interests in common. Today, both sides ought to be sufficiently confident to tell each other frankly what they think, where they disagree, and how to forge common interests and policies. The crisis in Ukraine will test that capacity again.

The conflict over Iraq ten years ago illustrated the fragility of transatlantic relations when clashes over policy boil over into personal grudge matches between leaders and morph into mistrust. Current relations between Germany and the United States have been burdened by clashes over American espionage and surveillance policies, also generating mistrust. That is something Merkel and Obama need to address as well during their meeting in Washington, but the issue should not be the primary defining agenda for this trip.

The crisis in Ukraine can act as a catalyst to re-emphasize the importance of transatlantic relations. That holds true for the European Union as well. In fact, negotiations over TTIP exemplify that. TTIP is not only a set of trade negotiations. It can also serve as a strategic framework for transatlantic relations in the future. For that to happen, there needs to be more political commitment behind the rationale for it—as was the case in the evolution of the European Union.

Similarly. the Ukraine crisis is not just a confrontation over territory. It is about a system of international rules—rules now being challenged by Moscow. The crisis is not only about Ukraine. It is about standing up for a set of values that have been the hallmark of an alliance for more than sixty-five years.

Celebrating freedom and friendship on the South Lawn of the White House may be easier than confronting immediate crises like the one in Ukraine. Regardless, the course of German-American relations over a half century is evidence that solidarity works when the commitments are shared.

In this twenty-fifth anniversary year of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germans and Americans can look at each other across the Atlantic and see friends with whom they can debate, argue, be angry. But they are, have been, and should be the kind of friends who can recognize a time when they need to act together in common cause.

Obama and Merkel may share the tendency to act slowly, incrementally, and cautiously, but there are times when leaders need to act decisively and publicly about the need for sustaining a commitment to shared goals. Aside from affirming that at their press conference in Washington, it will be more important that both leaders continue to make that argument to their domestic audiences. Sometimes, friends must remind themselves not to take friendship for granted.